FIFA Demands Sanctions After Justice Department Crackdown Comes Up in Lawsuit

Thomas Mueller FIFA World Cup Portugal Germany - H 2014
AP Images

Thomas Mueller FIFA World Cup Portugal Germany - H 2014

A California federal judge is being asked to look at the U.S. Department of Justice's criminal indictment against current and former executives of FIFA. And the international governing body of the sport of soccer is quite angry, claiming harassment and seeking sanctions.

What makes this situation unusual is that U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton is not overseeing any of the charges of money laundering, bribery and wire fraud lodged against FIFA executives related to how they have handled the organization's events. No, that's happening before a different federal judge in New York. Instead, Hamilton is presiding over a civil lawsuit that claims that FIFA has been negligent in the monitoring and treatment of head injuries.

The lawsuit was filed in August 2014 amid a rash of concussion-related litigation against other professional sports leagues. The complaint alleges that "FIFA presides over this epidemic" of head injuries "and is one of its primary causes. By this lawsuit, Plaintiffs seek to require FIFA to become part of the cure."

From the outset, the class action from a group of soccer parents and players figured to face a jurisdictional challenge. Could the plaintiffs convince a judge that a Zurich, Switzerland-based organization was susceptible to a tort lawsuit in a California courtroom?

Indeed, FIFA moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction. At a hearing on May 6, Hamilton indicated she was going to let FIFA escape the suit.

Then in late May, FIFA officials were arrested in Switzerland and charged by U.S. authorities for operating a "racketeering conspiracy."

In the aftermath of the shocking action, some began discussing whether the Justice Department really had authority to bring action against foreign nationals like this. U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch anticipated such jurisdictional concern by stating, "In many instances, defendants and their co-conspirators planned aspects of their scheme during meetings held here in the United States; they used the banking and wire facilities of the United States to distribute the bribe payments; and they planned to profit from their scheme in large part through promotional efforts directed at the growing U.S. market for soccer.”

That statement, plus the details of the 161-page indictment, were seen by attorneys at Hagens Berman, the firm representing the plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit. On June 2, they filed a motion to add federal government materials to its opposition to FIFA's attempt to dismiss the lawsuit. What's more, they requested discovery to determine whether FIFA is subject to general jurisdiction.

Here's the full motion.

"What do allegations of corruption involving soccer and sports marketing executives have to do with a lawsuit seeking rules changes allegedly required to address the risk of concussions in youth soccer?" asked FIFA's attorneys in opposition papers filed on Monday.

FIFA answered, "Nothing," and told the judge that the plaintiffs' "failure to make any effort to tie the conduct to their case confirms that their sole motive was to harass FIFA and insert unrelated allegations into these proceedings."

Here's FIFA's full opposition.

Foreign nationals in the criminal case may eventually challenge jurisdiction themselves. In the meantime, a California judge will have to decide whether FIFA has to play ball in a California courtroom and decide whether to authorize a parallel investigation into the organization's U.S. influence.